12/19/2014 02:41 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Race in the Food System

kali9 via Getty Images

By Eliza Loehr

On Wednesday December 3rd a Staten Island Grand Jury decided not to indict the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner. That night, at a rally in Union Square, protestors began chanting, "The system is broken." A man behind me started to laugh. "The system never worked!" he said, and started chanting, "The system is corrupt!"

The system he was referring to is the criminal justice system. And the corruption, I infer, is racism. Whatever you may think about the validity of the protests, they have ignited the country to take a deeper look into our criminal justice system, into the difference between equity and equality. Equality is an easier word to sit with. It has the connotation of treatment: if we treat everyone with respect, as equals, we are not racists.

Or so we, white and privileged people like myself, would like to believe.

Equity, on the other hand, requires action. To create a place where everyone not only has what they need, but also the power to decide what that may be. We can call the system broken, but if it continues to be the well-served community working to 'fix' the system for the good of the under-served community, we cannot expect change.

While the right language for the chants was discussed at the protests in Union Square, three leaders in the Food Justice world sat down in Bushwick, Brooklyn to have a similar discussion with Heritage Radio Network's Erin Fairbanks and Yvette Cabrera on what equity in the food system really means.

"It's about wealth," says Dennis Derryck, founder of Corbin Hill Food Project, a network of rural farms and urban communities in New York. Joining Derryck at the roundtable to discuss how the disparities in income affect the food system were Karen Washington, co-founder of the Black Urban Farmers and widely thought of as the godmother of urban farming and Raymond Figueroa-Reyes Jr., President of the New York City Community Garden Coalition.

Derryck further supported his claim with a quote from the May 2014 report put out by the Center for Global Policy Solutions 'Beyond Broke': "the median liquid assets for blacks is about $300". I looked at the report, curious what the corresponding number was for whites in the U.S., $23,000 it turns out. That is a wealth disparity nearly impossible for me to comprehend. "We don't give our community enough credit in terms of their resiliency given the disparities in income," Derryck continues, "and the disparities in income is something that I think we have to understand structurally, the impact it's having on our community, at every single level."

The roundtable is an honest discussion that digs through the root causes of racial inequity in the food system and the pitfalls into which we often fall. As with many conversations about justice and equity, the panelists stressed the importance of the voice of the community. A seat at the table at an early stage of decision-making, stresses Derryck, is crucial to the growth of underserved communities.

"We're talking about respecting the dignity of all folks," Figueroa-Reyes Jr. reminded the group -- which entails, as Washington points out, respecting the ability of communities to find solutions to their own problems rather than imposing outside ideas. "I don't want people to come into my community again with another program," Washington explains, "come into our community with job creation and business opportunities and financial literacy. The only way we're going to really put a dent in the hunger and poverty in my community, is through economic development".

Dealing with economic development is a long and slow process. Creating a soup kitchen or a food stamps program, in contrast, can seem like a quick fix and provides easily measurable results. For politicians with a short term in office, or 'do-gooders' looking for some karma, the quick fix is often more attractive. But as Figueroa-Reyes Jr. points out, an outside project "implies that folks don't have it within themselves. That folks don't have the collective efficacy, the social capital whereby to be productive on their own behalf." The problem is not a lack of intelligence or will power or creativity from within the community; the problem is simply a lack of wealth. When you are spending more than half of your net income on rent, as about 32% of South Bronx residents do according to Derryck, developing a thriving food community is hard. So we need to take a hard look at what is causing this income disparity. Is it prejudice? Is it lack of economic or educational opportunities? Is the system corrupt, and if so, where? And what questions need to be asked to change that?

"We need solutions that take people out of poverty and hunger," Washington echoes Derrycks' sentiment. "Put them in jobs, let them own their own businesses ... 'cause once you start owning stuff, it gives you power, to come out of poverty, to be able to feed yourself, to be able to own a home."

Food sovereignty is a term Washington brings up often; giving people power over their own food sources, allowing people the freedom to incorporate their culture and community into their personal food landscape. Food Sovereignty, according to Figueroa-Reyes Jr., looks "to honor the dignity of human beings."

To hear this candid discussion on Food Equity and Justice, click here, or visit us at Heritage Radio Network: a network dedicated to real conversations about all things food.